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Michael Wardian dodged cars and was struck by kindness on run across United States

Michael Wardian recently completed a run across the country. (Courtesy of Michael Wardian)
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Around 6 a.m. Friday, friends, family and curious onlookers cheered Michael Wardian’s arrival at the boardwalk in Rehoboth Beach, Del. After crossing his personal finish line, Wardian made a beeline for the water, not bothering to remove his shoes before jumping into the Atlantic Ocean beneath “one of the most beautiful sunrises” he had ever seen.

It was a well-deserved reward for the professional ultramarathoner from Arlington, who had just completed a 61-day run spanning 3,200 miles across the United States. The journey, which took Wardian through 13 states, was inspired by “Forrest Gump.”

“That’s when I knew that people did this type of thing,” Wardian, 48, said of the 1994 movie, which won the Oscar for best picture. “When I became a runner, I thought at some point in my life it might be cool to attempt this. Life gets in the way, but 20 years later, I put a plan into place.”

Wardian’s plan was to take no more than 75 days to complete his run while raising at least $100,000 for World Vision to help provide families around the world access to clean drinking water. He surpassed his fundraising goal and finished his journey with two weeks to spare.

After setting out from the steps of San Francisco’s City Hall on May 1, Wardian averaged more than 50 miles per day while running primarily along Route 50 over the next two months. His crew chief, Eric Belz, helped organize the run and drove the RV that served as Wardian’s sleeping quarters. (Belz also saved Wardian’s iPhone and AirPods from ruin when he reminded his friend to hand them over before his post-run plunge.)

Wardian’s first run across the country qualifies as the longest of his career, but he’s no stranger to creative feats and pushing the limits of endurance. He twice has completed the World Marathon Challenge, which requires participants to run seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. In 2019, he ran a nearly 90-mile loop around the Capital Beltway. The following year, he ran the equivalent of 10 marathons in a little more than 2½ days — by circling the block in his Northern Virginia neighborhood.

“Luckily I have a great family that knows that I like to do kind of ridiculous endeavors and are supportive of it,” Wardian said with a laugh. “The people that I work with are also supportive. I feel really lucky, and I’m just so grateful that we could do it for a great cause and change so many people’s lives.”

Wardian, a partner at an international ship brokerage firm, took the occasional client call while making his way across the country. He breezed through 35 audiobooks at two-times speed, including Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything” and “North,” a memoir by his friends Scott and Jenny Jurek about breaking the speed record for the Appalachian Trail. He supplemented audio books with podcasts, including “The Fantasy Footballers,” and an eclectic mix of music ranging from AC/DC to Taylor Swift.

A low moment of Wardian’s two-month trek came in Indiana, where he tweaked his hamstring while avoiding an angry driver who tried to nudge him off the shoulder. Wardian said that wasn’t the only incident of him being targeted but his journey was an overwhelmingly enjoyable experience.

“There’s incredible beauty in the United States,” he said. “Right now I’m super ‘Team America.’ For every one person that tried to run me off the road, I had 10 people that were stopping their car and offering to give me a ride or handing out snacks. I felt so fortunate to get a chance to see parts of the country that I hadn’t seen before and learn a lot about the different places.”

Wardian said some of the highlights of the past two months were all the people who joined him on various legs of his run, playing pickleball atop a mountain in West Virginia with friends who came to surprise him and spending a night with family at his Arlington home last week before continuing on to Delaware.

After his dip in the ocean Friday, Wardian ran another few miles to Dewey Beer Co. for a celebration with friends and family. Then he got some rest ahead of Saturday’s Seashore Striders Firecracker 5K. Wardian joked he might post a personal-worst time; instead he nearly averaged a six-minute mile.

What’s next for the real-life Forrest Gump? A pair of 100-mile mountain bike races in Colorado next month.

“I have to shift focus to get ready for that and just get back to running fast again,” Wardian said.